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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

This Is the Right Way to Apologize When You've Messed Up

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You probably say sorry at work a fair amount. And that’s because you probably make mistakes that entail apologies. That’s just part of having a job.

But most of us don’t think about how we go about making these apologies. Especially when we don’t feel we’re 100% responsible for what happened. Instead we blurt them out and don’t think about them again—which, as anyone who thinks they deserve a more genuine apology would tell you—can make people dislike or distrust you.

Here are the five steps to a sincere, professional, and respectable apology if you want to avoid this.

1. Actually Say the Words “I’m Sorry”

Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people apologize without actually saying these two words.

“I realize I made a mistake,” “I understand you were hurt,” “I feel bad,” are all great prefaces, but they don’t actually mean the same thing as “I’m sorry.”

No matter what happened, who was in the wrong, or how drastic the situation was, if what went down hurt someone else in some way, say you’re sorry. You only really mean it when you say it out loud.

2. Get Specific

Say what you’re sorry for so the person on the receiving end knows that you’re not sorry you’re in this situation, but you’re sorry about what put you there. Make it clear that you understand the consequences of your mistake—serious or otherwise.

By simply stating the impact, you’re making it clear to the person that you know why you’re having this conversation.

Bonus part of this step is that it lets you take responsibility for your part in what happened, without taking collective responsibility for a large-scale team disaster.

3. Focus on Your Non-verbal Cues

Of course, words compromise only 7% of the message you send off. Your body language, tone, and eye contact all reflect how you feel about something, so make sure those are in check.

Think about it: If someone was saying sorry to you while crossing their arms and looking at the floor, would you really believe they meant it?

Instead, look at the person you’re speaking to. Keep your body open and welcoming (arms at your sides and shoulders back). Don’t smile, but don’t glower either.

When I’m nervous to apologize, whether it’s because I made a huge mistake or because the recipient’s intimidating, I always practice what I’m going to say with a friend—this can be a great exercise for you as well.

4. Avoid Excuses

It’s incredibly instinctual to backtrack on something once we’ve put it out there. We’re afraid to look bad, so many times we’ll follow our apology up with a “but” or “well” explaining why it maybe, kinda wasn’t our fault.

But saying sorry genuinely is all about admitting you’re wrong and owning it. So, when you’re inclined to tag on an excuse, resist the urge. Sure, your apology might sometimes be followed by an awkward silence, but you need to accept that everything won’t always right itself immediately.

After this, you can…

5. Offer to Resolve It (or Prevent it in the Future)

Once you’ve said it, show you’re willing to fix your mistake. If you can’t this time (because what’s done is done), then explain how you’ll avoid this from happening again in the future.

Put it All Together

Let’s say you forgot to send an email to a client that you were supposed to send on your manager’s behalf.

In the past you might say:

Sorry about that.

But now you’ll say:

I’m sorry for forgetting to send that status report to the client on Friday. I know they expected it to be there and it reflected badly on you that it wasn’t. I made a note in my calendar for every Friday going forward to send it so that this won’t happen again.

Mind you, it’s quite possible that even following these steps won’t ease the tension. So this is where I’ll sound like a broken record and say: Everyone makes mistakes. It sucks to make them, to have to apologize, and to have to deal with the backlash that comes with them.

But while your genuine apology may not go over well in the moment, over time—as you consciously work to fix things—the person will see your good intent. And you’ll be glad you made the effort to say “sorry” the right way.